Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Long Struggle for Civil Rights

Gerald Ford was a champion of the civil rights movement long before becoming president in August 1975. Going back to his years in the House of Representatives, as his party's leader there, J.F. ter Horst recalls that

Ford took the view that the Republican future in the South could not be tied to racist politics.

The Democrats were still supporting segregation in 1964 and 1965, when Ford began leading the Republicans in Congress. It was through the crucial votes of Republican Senators and Representatives that the Civil Rights Act of 1960 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had become law. Likewise, Republican votes were necessary for the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The Democrats were approaching Ford with compromise offers. If Ford and the Republicans would support segregation, the Democrats would compromise with them on economic issues. But the Republicans stood firm, and would not vote for segregation:

As Republican National Chairman Ray Bliss was told privately by one Dixie Republican leader: "if we're going to get anywhere from now on, we've got to go after all the votes, not just the white ones." The racial nettle, however, was not so easily extracted from politics in the Deep South. In late 1965, for example, Ford had to cancel at the last minute an appearance at a big fund-raising dinner in Natchez, Mississippi, because the audience would be limited to whites. To emphasize his decision, Ford kept two speaking dates the same weekend on the University of Mississippi campus because of assurances from school authorities and civil rights groups that the sessions were open to all citizens.

President Ford's stance for full and equal civil rights was consistent, starting with his undergraduate days at the University of Michigan, where he worked in the 1930's to ensure that black football players were given the same privileges as white football players; Ford was MVP on a team that won two consecutive national championships. He maintained a determined commitment to fairness throughout his career, and in the White House, he appointed William Coleman, the first African-American to serve as Secretary of Transportation.